War Between Kurds and Turks?

by Robert Olson

Selahattin Demirtas, co-chair of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), has mentioned several times in the last few months that Turkey and its Kurdish population will go to war. He stated such a possibility in early March while in Washington and has repeated it several times since. “By summer, the tension between the PKK and the government could grow,” he said at the time. “Many Kurds and Turks could die, and this would trigger an ethnic war. We Kurds have been the most effective power in the Middle East against the barbarity of ISIS. We don’t understand why the world stays silent about the attacks on us.” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded that Demirtas was “plotting against the country and collaborating with terrorists to drag Turkey into chaos.”

In fact, what could be described as an “ethnic war” has already broken out. In July 2015, after the June election, both the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) sought to strengthen, by military means, their respective positions in future negotiations. The sides are not entirely defined by ethnicity. Some ethnic Turks are fighting with the (PKK) and also members of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK). The HDP welcomes Turks and other non-Kurdish ethnic groups into its ranks and has sought to keep its war with the Turkish state confined to a nationalist and ideological war.

The on-going war has led to the estimated death of 5,000 PKK fighters as well as 400 Turkish soldiers and security forces. It has resulted in the destruction of substantial portions of cities in the southeast, the displacement of 100,000 to 200,000 people, and the nationalization of 8,000 or more houses and properties. The rebuilding of the destroyed properties, depending on how and in what form they are rebuilt, could easily reached billions of dollars.

Demirtas also charged that the AKP was using an estimated three million Syrian refugees in Turkey for other purposes. One purpose was Turkey’s plan to empty regions of northern Syria of as many people as possible and replace them with people, groups, and fighters loyal to Turkey. Second, this would facilitate the intervention of Turkey’s armed forces. Three, accepting the refugees is an effective instrument in blackmailing European countries in any further negotiations. Four, Turkey wants to settle Syrian refugees to change the demography in some southeast provinces such as Marash and Dersim, dilute the Kurdish population, and compel newly settled refugees to vote for the AKP. Finally, Turkey wants to use the same tactics to ethnically cleanse Kurds from the towns and cities along the Turkish-Syrian border and replace them with Syrian refugees.

No Compensation

The destruction of their houses and confiscation of property further embitters Kurds. There is little or no chance that Kurds will receive any compensation for the destruction of their properties. The rebuilding is to be done by Turkey’s Governmental Mass Housing Administration (TOKI), which is completely under the control of the AKP and run by company officials close to Erdogan.

Erdogan and stalwart supporters of his government have handpicked the governors of the southeast provinces. Mehmet Ozhasiki, urbanization and environment minister, in mid-June offered three options to the “citizens” of this area, nearly all Kurds:

  • Turn in your land registry and the government may give you a house elsewhere in Diyabakir, Mardin, or even Istanbul;
  • Turn in your land registry and you may be reimbursed by the government;
  • You may be put into debt by the government in return for building a house that was already yours. This means paying for the land you have owned for 30 years.

Ozhasiki’s stress on the use of “may” is simply the polite way of saying in Turkish: “This ain’t gonna happen.” Most of the residents of the historic center of Sur were poverty-stricken villagers who fled the ethnic cleansing that Turkey’s armed forces carried out in the 1990s, which forced three million Kurds to flee to the larger cities in the southeast and to western Turkey. They have no resources to rebuild.

The HDP and PKK/KCK have said that they will oppose Prime Minister Binali Yildirim’s policy to take legal action against Kurdish municipalities and mayors in southeastern cities that allegedly have transferred funds designated for municipal services to the PKK/KCK. Yildirim has accused the municipalities and mayors of “direct relations with terrorists.” He has vowed to assign “trustees” to oversee the operations of the municipalities and mayors similar to what the AKP has done to newspaper and media outlets deemed to be opposed to the AKP and to President Erdogan. If such a plan were carried out, the HDP and PKK/KCK would certainly oppose it.

The PKK/KCK and the HDP are further embittered that the destruction was not just to nationalize their houses and properties. It also served to clear the border of Kurds and to sever relations between the PKK and Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed force, the People’s Protective Units (YPG), allowing Turkish armed forces to exert greater control over the PYD.

Relationship with Iraqi Kurdistan

Clearing the PKK from the border also further strengthens Turkey’s relations with Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), a strong ally of the U.S.-led war against the Islamic State (ISIS or IS). Clearing the PKK and its Kurdish population from the border could also push the PYD into a closer a relationship with the KDP and, eventually, with the Sunni-dominated government that emerges in the Sunni-Arab dominated regions of Syria.

The PKK and many in the Kurdish community more generally are very bitter about the KDP alliance with Turkey. They charge that the KDP is harming not just the PKK/KCK but Kurdish nationalist movements in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran by acquiescing to the slaughter of Kurds in Turkey who represent 50 percent of Kurds worldwide. They consider the KDP’s close alliance with Turkey and with the U.S. “treachery” to Kurdish national movements. Kurdish nationalists have contended that the KDP has even agreed to allow operatives from Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (MIT) to embed with Peshmerga forces.

They also stress that this is the cause of the friction contributing to the recent anti-KDP alliance between the Goran Party and Patriotic Union Party (PUK). The two parties’ differences are so great that the KDP even tried to arrest Goran leader Nushirwan Mustafa. Goran and PUK have decided to run on the same ballot in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) 2017 general election.

Attitudes toward the PKK

Despite dissent and opposition toward the PKK for contributing to the war and its dire consequences, the PKK/KCK will continue as viable organizations in Turkey, Syria, Iran, and with some followers in the KRG. There is, however, deep dissatisfaction even among members of the HDP. Altan Tan, a leading member of the conservative and religious wing of the HDP, is so disgruntled with the HDP and the PKK/KCK that in mid-June he announced that if a new Kurdish party were to be created, he would join it and become one of its leaders.

In an interview, Tan stressed that he and other Kurds could not tolerate the terrorist attacks carried out by the PKK in Istanbul and in the southeast, viewing such acts as destructive to Kurdish nationalist movements. He said that most Kurdish politicians, including members of the PKK, have supported a unified Turkey. In fact, he said, they support not just a democratic Turkey but a democratic Middle East. In the June 2015 election, the HDP won 80 parliamentary seats. Tan said that if the HDP, with the approval of the PKK/KC, had continued on this path, in the November election they would have had an opportunity to gain 100 seats. But in July the PKK/KCK opted for war against the wishes and policies of the HDP and its leadership, especially Selahattin Demirtas. The PKK leadership has acknowledged that they made a mistake in underestimating the ferocity of the response of the AKP and the armed forces.

Tan emphasized that part of the poor decision-making was due to the competition between the HDP and PKK leadership with the PKK commanders winning the argument. But Tan did not think that this meant the PKK was the stronger. He thought that the HDP was stronger among the Kurdish masses because it favored continued negotiations with the AKP. But Tan faulted the HDP as well, saying that the party had not followed a wise policy by going up against Erdogan so stridently.

Erdogan went ahead with starting a war against the PKK, thinking that the dire consequences would reduce Kurdish support for the PKK and consolidate the AKP’s appeal among conservative and religious Kurds. It would vindicate the decision of Kurdish tribal leaders, landed magnates, village guards, and professional classes, both in the southeast and elsewhere in Turkey, to align with the AKP and provide the Kurdish bourgeoisie and businessmen of the southeast an opportunity to participate in the rebuilding of the destroyed and damaged cities of the southeast, especially Diyarbakir.

The fighting currently favors the Turkish state. Meanwhile, there are now bigger fish to fry. Turkey is needed to help rebuild Syria over the next 40 years at an estimated cost of $300 to $350 billion. No international consortium of countries and banks want the “ethnic war” between Kurds and Turks within Turkey to continue. But it looks as though Erdogan, so far, has gotten what he wanted out of the escalation in tensions. 

Photo: Selahattin Demirtas

Robert Olson

Robert Olson is Professor of Middle East history and politics at the University of Kentucky (Emeritus). He is the author of ten books of various aspects of Middle East history and politics. His major books are: The Siege of Mosul and Ottoman- Persian Relations: 1718-1743; The Emergence of Kurdish Nationalism and the Sheikh Said Rebellion: 1880-1925; Turkey's Relations with Iran, 1979-2004;The Kurdish Question and Turkish-Iranian Relations:From World I to 2000; Blood, Beliefs and Ballots: The Management of Kurdish Nationalism in Turkey, 2007-2000; The Kurdish Nationalist Movements in Turkey: 1980-2011; The Goat and the Butcher: Nationalism and State Formation in Kurdistan-Iraq since the Iraqi War War. He is the author of 75 referred research articles and 60 edited research articles. He was distinguished Professor of the University of Kentucky in 2000. He is married and lives in Lexington, Kentucky.